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Jan 26, 2008

Sunday, February 17, 2008


Andy discusses 'The Everyday Story of Smalltown'

Song of the Week -- Andy's take

Part of an ongoing series of interviews by Todd Bernhardt with Andy Partridge about the songs we feature each week on MySpace. This week's song, "The Everyday Story of Smalltown," is from 1984's The Big Express.

Let it be known that, after a bit of a dry spell that was no doubt related to the writer's strike, Queen Kim is back on top of the hint-guessing heap. Huzzah! We'll be back in two weeks with an Andyview about a song that would stir the hearts of both Montague Dawson and Edgar Degas.

TB: Let's talk about "The Everyday Story of Smalltown." What prompted you to write this paean to small-town life?

AP: I only came to this decision today, hearing this song after not hearing it for quite a while -- I think that at the time of The Big Express, part of me wanted to do an out-and-out concept album about Swindon -- my take on the town, my life in the town, and the town's life itself. I think that's why the album's called The Big Express. It might be a concept album by stealth! That's why there are things like "Train Running Low"; "Everyday Story of Smalltown"; the connection with my father through "All You Pretty Girls"; there's my fear at the time of nuclear Armageddon, because we were still neck-deep in the Cold War; there was our situation with our manager, which was "Liarbird," so that was autobiographical...

TB: And "Red Brick Dream"...

AP: "Red Brick Dream" was out-and-out about Swindon; Colin's "Washaway" was about life on the Penhill council estate; "I Remember the Sun" was about the fields that he and I used to play over, next to the council estate. For all intents and purposes, Big Express is a lot more a concept album than most people's concept albums! But we never said it was. It's the anti-Sgt. Pepper, which everyone thought was a concept album, but wasn't. With Big Express, nobody thinks it's a concept album, but it actually might be.

TB: It's interesting to hear you say that, because I actually kind of did think there was something like that going on, especially when you pair the album with Mummer. The two albums together have always been two sides of the same coin for me -- one rural, one urban...

AP: Right. Which is kind of where Colin and I lived on the Penhill estate. It isn't now, because it's all been built over, but the Penhill estate used to butt up next to the countryside. I mean, the first house I lived in on the estate, which was in Latton Close, I could go out in my front garden as a kid and 20 foot away was a fence to farmland. You could just hop the fence and roam off over farmland, streams and stuff. Colin used to do that as well -- we used to go over the fields, and get chased by farmer's boys who'd shoot at you with shotguns, or rough you up.

TB: Did you seriously get shot at?

AP: I actually don't remember getting shot at -- I remember getting threatened and them waving shotguns at us. People have told me they had been shot at -- you know, with buckshot. These farmer's boys hated the thought of this council scum going over their fields. "How dare they play in our woods on our land," you know?

TB: Right. But it's not like you were doing damage to the crops or anything -- you were just out playing.

AP: Exactly. We were just snapping twigs to make bows and arrows, and bending them to make dens and stuff like that. Yeah, den building -- that was big as a kid.

TB: Hence that song.

AP: And hence that song, yeah! It was practicing to be a grown-up.

TB: So, back to "Smalltown" -- it's about Swindon...

AP: Yeah, it's about Swindon, and it's also Swindon singing it. Especially in the middle section, where the singer becomes the town.

TB: One of the most beautiful parts of the song for me. I love the lyrics to this song.

AP: Well, this is a lyric-powered song, as opposed to "Red," which was a noise-powered song. A "joy-of-noise-scape." This one is lyric-powered.

TB: You were really coming into your own as a lyricist by this time, too.

AP: When I heard it today, I thought, "Shit, there's some ersatz Dylan Thomas in there." Around about the same time that I wrote this, I vaguely remember reading a Dylan Thomas book called A Child's Christmas in Wales. I had an illustrated version by Edward Ardizzone, a famous book illustrator, and I remember enjoying it. I liked how he let strings of words go, so they all reflect on each other. I was trying to do that more and more. So I think there's a little vein of Dylan Thomas in the lyric of this, if that doesn't sound too pretentious.

TB: No, not at all. I've always found these lyrics to be incredibly evocative, and intimate. You and I have talked about this before, but the thing I like about Graham Fellows and his John Shuttleworth character is the fact that though he is making fun of those people, at the same time he's incredibly sympathetic to them.

AP: It's affectionate.

TB: Absolutely. It's the same thing when you're talking about somebody who's "coughing in the toilet." It's like, "Well, of course they're doing that -- we've all done it."

AP: Yeah. A lot of this is about my grandparents -- both of them. I mean, both sets -- [imitates Paul McCartney] "Because everyone's entitled to two, aren't they." [laughs] Isn't that a line from A Hard Day's Night? One of my granddads worked for the Great Western Railway for a lot of his life. The Great Western was kind of the Wal-Mart of Swindon, in that everyone worked for it.

TB: Swindon was a company town, right?

AP: Yeah! I think that some crazy amount, like two people in every three, worked for the Great Western. It was behind these great walls, so everyone just called it "inside." "Where do you work?" "Oh, I work inside."

So, my mother's father worked for the Great Western for a long time; he's one of the characters in this. And I also think of my father's father with his rolled-up cigarettes in the toilet, coughing and hacking away, in their little bungalow on the Penhill estate. Or, where they used to live, near one of the railway lines in Rodbourne. They used to have a tiny house with an outside toilet, with a sort of crescent moon cut in the door, you know?

TB: An outhouse, sure.

AP: He'd be sat in there coughing and hacking away. It's one of the sounds of Swindon for me. Another of the immortal sounds of Swindon was the Great Western factory hooter calling people to work. We ended up using the recording of the last time it ever sounded on "The Meeting Place."

TB: It's funny that the image you're talking about, of "coughing in the toilet," is as simple as that. I had always thought, given that you're "woken by the Sally Army Sunday marchround," that "coughing in the toilet" was about retching from the aftereffects of a hard Saturday night.

AP: Oh no, it's my granddad with his roll-ups in the toilet. That was one of the sounds -- you'd know where granddad was, because you'd hear him in there with his cigarettes. You'd go in there an hour later, and it'd still stink of his roll-ups.

TB: So, let's talk about the lyrics: "Smalltown, snoring under blankets / Woken by the clank / It's just the milkman's dawn round."

AP: "Blankets" and "clank / It's" -- it's very Hollywood, that. That's kind of Wizard of Oz rhyming. And do you know, the milkman still wakes me up. Even in this age, I can hear the little electric cart going phwizzzzz-BANG. The BANG is every time he takes his foot off the sort of bumpercar pedal -- it just slams to a stop.

He was a big family friend, actually -- the milkman. He was a fellow called Bert, who was our milkman for years while I was a kid. Then he gave up being a milkman, and funnily, he went over to doing a bread-delivery round. So he went from five years or so of being "Bert the Milkman" to five years or more of being "Bert the Baker."

TB: Two of the staples of life! Let's see -- "Smalltown, hiding under covers / The lodgers and the lovers / Are asleep 'round Smalltown."

AP: Ooh, how romantic!

TB: [laughs] "Shiny grey black snake of bikes / He slithers / Bearing up the men and boys / To work."

AP: I think that's one of the better lines, and it comes from hearing somebody say that when it was "hometime" at the Great Western factory, this great mass of bikes would come out, because not many people had cars. I heard somebody say, "It's like a big black snake of bikes!" And I thought, "Is it really black? I guess so." But then as I thought about it more, I thought it was more a gray-black, so I literally ended up using the line "Shiny grey black snake of bikes."

TB: Which is more like a snake anyway, because of the way their scales are slightly iridescent.

AP: Right. You're not sure if it's black or silvery or gray. And, then after the "he slithers" line, I think we shake a shaker on the recording, to make a cartoon snake noise.

"Bearing up the men and boys to work" -- and it was. You know, young kids worked at this place as well.

"We're standing in poplar lines"...

TB: Why "poplar"?

AP: Well, they always seem to plant poplar trees in lines -- in straight rows. You can see this on the continent as well -- you see it in France, these lines of poplars acting as a windbreak.

TB: Ah. When I first heard this, I thought it was "popular lines" -- I thought you were making a pun that they were making a popular product line.

AP: Oh, no no no. That's kind of interesting, though -- I hadn't thought of that! No, it's "poplar," the tree. Some older parts of Swindon do have lines of poplars. And when you see people working in factories, often they're lined up the same way.

So, where were we? "Making alarm clocks that'll wake our wives up." I don't think they make alarm clocks in Swindon. I just wanted an image where you're building something small and mechanical and doing this repetitive work, and then the irony is you end up buying it yourself. So you've got to give me a bit of artistic license there.

And then "Don't ask us, we haven't the time"...

TB: Which is why you used the alarm-clock image -- it sets up that line well.

AP: There you go. "We're racing the hooter that will signal life's up." You haven't got any time to talk about what life's all about when you work in a factory -- you're on your bike, and off you go, and, "I've got to get there before the next hooter sounds, because if it does sound, they're going to dock my wages, or send me home and dock me a full day's wage if I'm 10 minutes late." Because they used to be bastards like that. But the hooter signals that work's up, and eventually it will signal life's up, because most people worked at the Great Western -- that was their life.

"Smalltown, crouching in the valley" -- because my first house in Swindon was in an area called "The Valley." "Woken by the Sally Army / Sunday marchround." A lot of Sundays, the Salvation Army -- or the Sally Army -- they would have this marching brass band going around, so the one day you have during the week when you could lay in and sleep longer, sometimes you couldn't, because [laughing] these fucking religious nutcases would be out there parading up and down with this brass band at unearthly o'clock in the morning!

"Smalltown, coughing in the toilet" -- there's my granddad -- "Who on earth would spoil it / Would they pull down Smalltown?" I don't think I did this well, but I have to explain my intention. Part of me thought you shouldn't spoil this place by pulling it down. That'd be terrible. And of course, Swindon was starting to be pulled to pieces at that time. But part of me wanted to say, "C'mon, pull this thing down, let's start afresh, because it's getting a mess." I wanted it to be truly taken both ways.

Then we've got verse two -- "If it's all the same to you / Mrs Progress" -- because that's what was going on. I was thinking of Bert the Baker/Bert the Milkman saying this bit. It's kind of like they're characters in a play, these people. "Think I'll drink my Oxo up and get away." Because this is the sort of thing -- my mother would get Bert in and make him a cup of tea, and he'd say, "Oh, I've got to drink this up, love, I've got to be away."

TB: Why did you use Oxo there?

AP: Do you have Oxo in the States?

TB: We have things like beef bouillon...

AP: It's the same thing -- basically a cube of dried blood. You squeeze it into some boiling water, and mix it up, and pour it on your meat, or you can just drink it, like a sort of savoury tea. I think it was seen as a macho thing, like a working man's "dead-hard cuppa tea." [laughs] "Hey, I'm drinking bull's blood here!" It's the sort of thing you give someone on a wintry day, to pick 'em up.

"It's not that you're repulsive to see / In your brand new catalogue nylon nightie" -- because that's what all the mums wore when I was a kid! They'd be getting their milk in the morning, coming out on their doorstep, and they'd have these kind of cartoon, fluorescent pink see-through layered kind of nightie things on. And Jesus, I still find those erotic now!

My family used to live by the postal catalog. It was a bit of fuss to get into town, so once or twice a year, they'd get this mail-order catalog sent. If I got it before they did, I'd look at the underwear section! Ohhh, you just wanted to know what was beneath those corsets! You know, that tummy-restraining panel -- all of my attention as a kid was focused on what is going on under that tummy-restraining panel.

Anyway, my mother wore a brand-new catalog nylon nightie, but so did every mother in the row. "You're too fast for little old me" -- because she's Mrs. Progress, right? "Next you'll be telling me it's 1990" -- Wow! I mean, as a kid, that was the future.

TB: Oh, of course. And it's even better that you're writing this in the mid-'80s and saying that, because it shows you're writing about a different time.

AP: It's me as a kid, thinking about the people around me. For me, in the future, we'd all be living on Venus and having holidays on Neptune and eating dinner pills and wearing jetpacks and a silver suit, you know?

And now look at it -- it's still 1950 over here, with computers. [sighs]

Then, the next character on stage is the town itself. "I have lived here for a thousand years or maybe more / And I've sheltered all the children who have fought the wars / And as payment they make love in me." And that's all the payment that the town needs.

And there's a long list of where they do it -- "In squeaky old beds / In bicycle sheds/ Inside of their heads /As singles and weds / As Tories and Reds/ And that's how I'm fed / And that's how I'm fed." That's all the town asks -- that people keep making other people in its presence. Which is all a town could want, really, because if you want to kill a town, just take the people away.

TB: Indeed. The music of this is related to the lyrics, of course -- you talk about the Sally Army in here, and there's that kind of feel to it.

AP: Yes.

TB: It's got that march beat, and those faux horns...

AP: Definitely faux horns. I think [producer] David Lord, who was a great arranger, said something like, "You'll need a flugelhorn, and trombone or two, you'll need a trumpet or two," and so on, and we said, "Well, how much is this going to cost?" I think we were a bit scared off by that.

But then he said, "Look, I'll tell you what we can do. You do the thing on the demo, which I really like" -- it's the comb-and-paper thing I do on the demo, me showing whoever was going to be our producer that "this is where the brass band goes" -- "and if that's not enough, I know somebody with some pretty good samples of brass." And that was Tears for Fears.

TB: Ah, so that's why you credit them on the album.

AP: Yep. We borrowed this emulator/keyboard setup from them and knocked up a kind of communal arrangement -- Dave would say, "Try this line out," and I'd say, "Okay, now put that line in," and then Colin would say, "Ooh, try that harmony with it," and then David Lord would say, "Okay, now try that response line to it." So, we did an arrangement by committee. Which worked out really well -- for faux horns fakery, it doesn't sound too bad at all.

TB: So, let's talk about the drumming a little bit -- it's Pete Phipps, not the Linn Drum, right?

AP: Oh yeah, and he did a great job! We got him to use a lot of ambience, because I wanted it to be really stomp-y.

TB: You programmed this when you did the demo, and he took that as his guide...

AP: Yeah. He was using that as a sort of a template. But I knew I didn't want to do it with programmed drums. The only ones I wanted to do with programmed drums were the ones that had to have a mechanical backbone to them, such as parts of "Train Running Low," where I wanted it to be redolent of mechanical things. And people think it's mechanical on "Shake You Donkey Up," but it's not -- it was Pete Phipps! He was a fucking great drummer.

TB: Oh yeah. Still is, I presume!

AP: It's all that Tai Chi he used to do. We'd come in some mornings, and he'd be there in his gear, doing it. [whispers] "Don't interrupt him!" "What's he doing?" "It's okay -- he directs the tides by doing this! That leg going in the air slowly there -- he's just getting a tide in the Straits of Hormuz sorted out right now." [chuckles] But yeah, he did a great job on this.

TB: He's got a great martial feel on the song.

AP: Yeah, it's kind of a Pop version of the march. It sounds sort of corny, but stick with me here -- I can imagine some of the other characters in the song joining me in this march, marching around Swindon. You're accruing more and more people as you march through the song. To the point where, at the end of the middle section -- which has got a kind of steam-train noise puffing through it, and which I think was a kind of fucked-up snare drum -- when it bursts back into the song, there are tapes of children screaming and yelling in playgrounds. Because I wanted people to think that there are more and more people joining the march.

TB: Ah, okay -- I'd heard that, and always wondered what it was, and whether or not I was hearing things.

A friend of mine, Simon Knight, has been talking on Chalkhills about modern-day mastering techniques, which push songs to their sonic limits throughout the song, leaving no aural "headroom."

AP: Well, they also record songs like that now, and they treat it like that as they go along, and then they master it so it doesn't move. Which is wearing, because there are no dynamics.

TB: Yeah. This song seems to me to be a good example of the opposite -- it slowly builds up sonically, creating a sense of drama. Were you consciously trying to do this?

AP: We were trying to build it, and trying to give the impression that the cast of characters in the song and the town is growing and growing. So, at the end of the middle section, you can hear that sort of steam train, and we do a little mini-fade, where the steam train chuffs away, taking the song with it. Then suddenly, BAM, it's back in your face, back out the other side of the tunnel. At the end, there's everyone stamping around in a big parade, you know?

TB: What are you and Dave doing on the song? Colin's part seems to be pretty straight ahead on this.

AP: Yeah. The stomping guitar on the left-hand speaker is all Dave -- that sort of chopping, "Ball and Chain"-type guitar. And the more slightly twinkly, twangier one on the right is me.

TB: Dave's playing keyboards on this as well, right? Is David Lord playing?

AP: Dave plays most of the keyboards, I think. David Lord would usually lean over and say, "Could you make it a bit more like this?" I think it was only a mono keyboard, so we would have built up the lines, like actual brass pieces.

I remember that the first part of this that I wrote, apart from having the idea that I wanted to do a song like this, was that motif that you hear before the verse. I wrote that on the guitar actually -- it was like a chord thing, where you could hold the chord, and move the root notes around. I remember that quite clearly -- that was the first thing that came up.

TB: So the music came up first, and kind of brought the lyrics out of you?

AP: Yeah, I knew I wanted to write a song about Swindon, this small town. You know, whenever anyone would talk about Swindon, they'd say, "Oh, it's a small town up the M4." Which it is, but it has grown incredibly in the last 20 years. In fact, it's a real definition of a donut town. It's all around the outside -- there's nothing left in the middle now.

TB: Anything else you remember about the actual writing of the song?

AP: One funny thing -- because of the subject matter, and because of some of the brass-band-y nature of some of the melodies, I remember feeling guilty that the verse was in E! The blues-iest key of all Blues keys. "Should I move this to be in another key? It seems almost wrong, to be in E."

TB: Too ordinary.

AP: It was too ordinary, and too sort of American or something. I wanted it to be ludicrously British.

TB: You were playing in your open-E tuning?

AP: No, not on this track, actually. This is one of the ones that's not in that.

TB: A lot of this album was, right?

AP: Yeah, in fact, most of this album was open-E tuning, but not this song.

So, I felt guilty that it was in E, but I thought, "No, it's got to be. This is how it works, and this is the right tonal change, and everything." This whole track is a real excerpt from a teenage opera. And, like I say, in my head, though I didn't say it -- because it was one of the biggest, sweary, cussiest things you could ever say was, "Yeah, it's a concept album" -- to me, I was making a concept album.

2:58 PM

©2008 by Todd Bernhardt and Andy Partridge. All Rights Reserved.